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Issue 36, March 1999

Turning point in Labour's welfare assault

'WELFARE: THE Crackdown', Daily Mail. 'Benefits crackdown on single mothers', The Times. 'Ministers to take hard line on single mothers', The Independent. The media spin on Alistair Darling's Welfare Reform Bill, published on 11 February, was unambiguous. 'Far tougher than people thought', was how he described it.

This Bill buries any idea that the Autumn 1997 lone parent benefit cuts were a 'mistake' or that Frank Field's summer resignation marked a softening in New Labour's approach to welfare reform. For the last two years New Labour have been involved in a propaganda offensive to pave the way for the huge cuts in welfare demanded by the ruling class. Now they are moving further and faster than ever towards abandoning universal benefits and replacing welfare with US-style workfare. In the words of Blair, 'the days of an automatic right to benefit will go'. Social security is to be replaced by social insecurity for all but the very rich.

The 'single work focused gateway' into benefits will make it compulsory for all claimants, including lone parents and the disabled, to attend Job Centre interviews. If they don't show up they will receive no benefit. Failure to attend subsequent follow-up interviews (how often is left to the discretion of the social security minister) will result in benefit cuts.

The New Deal for lone parents was initially presented as a positive, voluntary initiative which would help claimants to move off benefits and into work. But very few lone parents have accepted the 'invitation' to attend interviews. In Cardiff, where 5,000 letters were sent out, only 14% replied. A government which genuinely wanted to help lone parents into work would carry out an in-depth study of why the New Deal has not been successful. Instead, the mask has slipped, with New Labour moving directly towards coercion, threats and harassment. The real aim of the New Deal has been clearly exposed: to force lone parents off benefits and into work - any work, however unsuitable it might be for themselves or their children.

  Even Frank Field commented that unless adequate resources are made available, compulsory interviews are simply ways of 'roughing-up' claimants. Lone parents and the disabled will feel intimidated with the threat of benefit sanctions hanging over their heads. This is the last thing lone parents need if they have just been through a traumatic relationship breakdown. Yet, according to Darling, such treatment is 'harsh but justifiable'.

The denial of benefits to asylum seekers shows just how far New Labour are prepared to go if left unopposed. They are stepping up their propaganda to stigmatise benefit claimants, blaming them for their own situation. So Blair talks about 'an end of a something-for-nothing welfare state', as if lone parents and the disabled were workshy benefit scroungers. Jamie Cann, Labour MP for Ipswich, went further saying, 'most working people despise dependency as a form of parasitism'. Ken Jackson, leader of the AEEU engineering union, urged the government to be even harsher. 'Working people are no longer prepared to pay for a system that does not work', he said. 'If people are offered opportunities they should have no option but to take them up'.

There is a clear attempt to divide people in work from those entirely dependent on benefits. If the unemployed can be blamed for unemployment it becomes easier to make immediate cuts in welfare and to carry out the much bigger cuts which the ruling class will be demanding when the economy moves into recession or even slump.

At the same time, means-testing universal benefits, such as child and incapacity benefits, is presented as a way of redistributing wealth. But, as Field pointed out in the New Statesman: 'The proposed benefit transfers… will occur largely over a limited range. There are not many duchesses claiming incapacity benefit, or at least there weren't the last time I looked into it'. He goes on: 'What happens through the benefit system is insignificant compared with what happens through taxation'. But for a government that prioritises wealth creation over wealth redistribution, there is clearly no intention to redress inequality through taxing the rich.

  By extending means testing New Labour are moving ever closer to, effectively, a two-tier welfare system where those in work are expected to provide for themselves and those who can't are left with little or no support.

But the campaign which developed around the cuts to lone parent benefits showed that the divisions which New Labour are trying to sow can be overcome. This movement linked together those in work with those on benefits and united working-class people with sections of the middle class who were outraged at attacks on one of the poorest sections in society. Anger was so great that it provoked a parliamentary rebellion forcing New Labour into a partial climbdown.

Potentially, a similar movement could develop around the Welfare Reform Bill. If implemented, New Labour's plans would affect all but the very rich. A counter-offensive is needed to expose the real nature of welfare 'reform'. A campaign must be taken into the trade unions and links made between trade unionists and organisations representing lone parents, the disabled and the unemployed. The Welfare Reform Bill means a serious attack on the welfare state. It must be opposed.

Christine Thomas

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